A December, 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee - branded America's largest environmental disaster by both activists and politicians - is providing new insights, and renewed investigation, into this unsightly and dangerous byproduct of coal-fired power plants.
In both 1988 and 1999, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies largely downplayed the risks of coal ash, and this led to the adoption of the Bevill Amendment, which exempted power plants from having to treat coal ash like toxic waste; that is, providing double-walled liners at disposal sites and monitoring groundwater for leaching at regular intervals.
In 2007, another EPA study on coal combustion byproducts determined that, in terms of both human and ecological risks, coal ash contained significant quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and selenium, which can lead to the development of cancer and neurological problems. The risk, from unprotected coal ash sites leaching into water supplies, is described as being in the 90th percentile (read "very high").
On December 22, 2008, when millions of cubic yards of coal ash breached the Kingston Fossil Plant retaining wall, it had been so long since a major coal ash disaster (the last one occurring in 1972 in Buffalo Creek, Virginia) that most heads were turned in the direction of the upcoming presidential nomination. Now, a month later, with a new president and Tennessee rivers still running black with ash, administration officials are rethinking the Bevill Amendment, the common name for the reform measures added to the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act which allow coal burning plants to escape Subtitle C coal ash regulations.
Now that it's too late, residents of Tennessee and regions downstream - not to mention the hundreds living near other U.S. power plants which have similar coal ash dumps - are asking themselves if playing into the greedy hands of energy industry executives was the one act that made the game not worth the candle. Coal was ‘dirty' before Kingston; now it is beyond coming clean.
Studies conducted over the last few decades have confirmed that coal ash, or fly ash, is more radioactive than nuclear waste. In fact, according to recent article in Scientific American (see endnotes in the article), fly ash contributes 100 times more radiation to the surrounding environment via its uranium and thorium content than does a nuclear power plant creating the same amount of energy.
This fact is so startling it makes this writer - who has worked in the nuclear energy industry - break out in a cold sweat, asking what we might have unwittingly done to our environment, and ourselves, by burning coal. The further observation, that coal ash also contains arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, chromium VI, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, selenium and vanadium, along with dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), seems like a minor footnote compared with the larger problem of radiation.
Nor does the fact that the U.S. uses about 40 percent of this fly ash in making Portland cement mitigate the disaster potential. The other 60 percent is still sitting outside coal plants in piles, waiting for an act of Nature to create another mega-disaster. This ash - a record 131 million tons in 2007 - is an accident looking for a place to happen.
Predictably, in light of the recent coal ash disaster, the EPA is blaming the Tennessee Valley Authority, even though it was the EPA who overruled itself in allowing ash piles to exist independent of protective enclosures.
While everyone points the finger, Tennessee residents near the Kingston plant are faced with a future laden with potential cancers, birth defects and neurological anomalies that doctors will diagnose and bureaucrats dismiss. Fish are also turning up dead in record numbers, though the effect on other populations, like birds, will probably wait until summer to reveal itself.
Perhaps it's time to stop trying to clean up coal, and start making it look like the evolutionary dead end it is. I'm sure the residents of Harriman, Tennessee would agree.
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